‘It’s seen better days, that’s what’s happened.’ This is as big a change as The Leisure Hive, less for the visuals, which superficially echo Varos, but in the quality of the script. Suddenly, for all their odd slang sayings, these people speak like human beings. Mel might be on the menu for two cannibals from a dystopian future, but it sounds just like they’re having a cosy chat. The Doctor gossips away to the Deputy Chief Caretaker about the difficulty of doing a good job. Mel comes across as a middle class square, happier with the Rezzies than the Kangs, but even this humanises her in a way that the “computer genius with a memory like an elephant” brief never did. For several years we’ve had American teenagers that speak like characters from Victorian melodrama and space gangsters declaiming at each other in Bad Sci-Fi-ese. This is such a relief.
I’m a big fan of Stephen Wyatt’s writing – not just the clever slang (‘wallscrawl’, ‘ice hot’, ‘unalive’), but the sly humour. ‘Fountain of Happiness Square’ is a hideous mess, and sounds exactly like somewhere that might exist on some inner city estate. Tilda and Tabby, two characters straight out of Tales of the Unexpected, twitter away with grim innuendo about the Kangs being ‘nasty, untrusting girls’ as they eye up Mel’s tender flesh, wolves in sheeps’ clothing. The backstory is lightly but clearly sketched out – most of the middle aged people and presumably the boys were all sent off to fight in a war that no-one knows who won. Thought he was envisaged as an Arnie clone, Pex is a fun poke at stereotypical 1980s masculinity.
This is mostly on the same page. The Caretakers might be dressed as gay Nazis, but that just evokes the idea of unthinking “just obeying orders” genocide-by-bureaucracy. The Kangs look like they’re in a 1980s sci-fi thriller (and the music sounds like it). The contrast with the chintzy Rezzies is perfect. Clothes, as the Doctor points out, don’t maketh the man, but they give the audience a helpful shorthand to understand what’s going on in this society – as does the casting of Richard Briers playing an unbound version of Martin Bryce (from Ever Decreasing Circles, whose last series overlaps with this). The “white goods” cleaning robots, gliding through this all gleamingly unblemished, are menacing because they’re so clearly apart from the grubbiness of Paradise Towers, treating its human inhabitant as trash to take to the basement.
McCoy’s performance is mostly excellent, his occasional tendency to garble line readings aside. I love his interaction with the Red Kangs, as he’s visibly trying to work them out. His awkward, respectful reciprocation of their ‘how-you-do’ is perfect: some previous Doctors swanned about like they owned the place, practically oblivious to what anyone else was doing. This one shows some humility.
Next episode: Paradise Towers – Part Two